It may have picked up eight Oscars back in 1940, but Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939) has lost some of its lustre over the years whilst feeling incredibly dated politically. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s doorstop of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this is a sweeping American epic set in the depths of the Old South. It’s the type of tale we don’t really see on the big screen any more – all grand gestures, bustles and satin, plus the odd iconic swoon. Following heroine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) before the outbreak of the American Civil War, what ensues is a love triangle to end all love triangles, a tour de force of doomed love.
Back in UK cinemas this week courtesy of a new 4K BFI rerelease, Fleming’s film has often courted controversy due to its sidelining of slavery – an issue that this year, thanks to Steve McQueen’s unflinching 12 Years A Slave (2013), has been given fresh relevance for cinemagoers. The black characters here such as Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) and Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), whilst well-acted, are little more than racist caricatures. Slavery is deemed by-the-by as the South’s officers are portrayed as knights in shining armour. Yet, whilst this level of ignorance may seem distasteful to modern palates, the love triangle between Scarlett, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Wilkes (Leslie Howard) is a rollicking ménage à trois.
There’s an undeniable grandeur to Gone with the Wind that isn’t seen enough in contemporary cinema, and the scope and the conviction with which Fleming orchestrates proceedings is highly commendable. Over the course of its substantial runtime you can’t help (at least on a surface level) but be swept up. We can’t help but absorb ‘classics’ such as this into the public consciousness. Gable’s oft-quoted final line is uttered by those who don’t always know where it originates from. In short, this is the stuff of Hollywood legend and so it can be difficult to step back from the glamour of former heavyweight screen stars such as Gable and Leigh.
The film’s sprawling set-pieces and scarlet sunsets are truly sumptuous to behold and endure seventy years on. However, if we dare to peel back its Technicolor veneer, what we’re left with is a triptych of fine performances shot against blood red skies. Fleming’s Gone with the Wind possesses a worryingly celebratory attitude towards the world of the Old South, a place of bigotry and racism that today makes it feel like a relic from an all too recent, dark period in American history. Rather than confront the guilt related to the sins of the past it paints over them in vivid colours, hoping the viewer will collude in its melodramatic muddying of the water.